- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 17, 2002

OK, so the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals will hate me a little more now, and the stuffed shirts at the Humane Society of the United States will be appalled, but my conscience isn't the least bit troubled when I say that I love to go squirrel hunting. Better yet, I enjoy eating fried or stewed squirrels perhaps even more than hunting them.
Could be it's a longing for the days of yore when self-sufficient Americans managed wonderfully well without neighborhood meat markets that had racks filled with cellophane-wrapped cuts that might contain steroids and antibiotics.
It also could be that as a teen-ager, freshly arrived here from southern Germany where all the men in the Mueller clan hunted deer, wild pigs, hares and pheasants (but never squirrels), I was introduced to the intricacies of bringing home enough of the gray speedsters to provide tasty meals of a type that American settlers immensely enjoyed.
The little tree-dwelling rodents were magnificent then, and they continue to be so today. This is especially true if you have a youngster who wants to start hunting. In my unbendingly patriarchal Old World family, it was the boys who were taught to hunt at 10. Girls learned how to cook the wild game that the "men" brought home.
Thankfully, that has changed. Nowadays, more and more women on both sides of the Atlantic are taking to the woods and learning just what it is we guys get so excited about. The distaff side follows the horn of the hunter, and that is good for all of us.
However, if someone wants to take up recreational hunting with the very real possibility of providing first-rate dinners for the family you don't begin by stalking whitetail deer or wild turkeys. No, first you learn how to hunt squirrels in the case of upland game or mourning doves if you plan to become a bird hunter, including waterfowl. If you learn to become proficient with a gun and can bag either species consistently, you're well on your way to being a good hunter.
Why? Mourning doves and gray squirrels have the unnerving habit to zig at the very moment you zag. They're totally unpredictable, very fast considering their size, and they follow no surefire pattern of behavior.
As concerns squirrels, forget the silly notion that the wild woodland animals are the same dumb, trusting critters you feed scraps of bread or peanuts on a neighborhood park bench. No way.
A few days ago, as I entered a friend's woods that lie hard by the shores of the Port Tobacco River in Charles County, daylight had not fully arrived, but you wouldn't know it from watching the first squirrel that left its den tree an old beech. The little animal fairly ran down the tree, never halting until it was out of sight.
What gives? He had no inkling that I was nearby. The forest floor was wet from heavy rains, permitting quiet steps not to mention the fact that my fully camouflaged clothing blended nicely with the surroundings.
However, I eventually ended up with five of the bushytails, one shy of a Maryland limit. It was good enough. They were seen wherever there was a strong presence of acorns and beech nuts, but none of them made the hunt easy. The squirrels acted nervous, very skittish even as they momentarily sat on a stump or a branch to consume the fruits of a hardwood forest. Since no one else hunted this section of the woods, it told me that the squirrels might have regular encounters with foxes, perhaps large owls or hawks. Whatever it was, they were extremely wary.
Meanwhile, what type of gun is proper to use? Our rule is that a 20-gauge shotgun, loaded with Number 4 pellets, will be ideal when lots of leaves are still on the trees. Forget smaller-size shotgun loads. Your teeth will thank you later when you bite down on a piece. When the forest is bare, I switch to a .22 caliber rifle. A good hunter dispatches his game swiftly and humanely, so if you're not a superb shot with a rifle that fires a solid projectile, you will wound some of the small animals, miss others, and not fare very well in general. In that case, stick to a shotgun.
The skinning of a squirrel isn't the easiest among fur game species, but it can be done by cutting through the pelt across the back, separating some skin on either side of the cut, then working the left and right hand into the loose skin parts and pulling in opposite directions. It requires solid effort, but you'll get better with each try.
After the skin is gone and head, feet and entrails have been removed, separate the rear and front legs, cut the rest of the squirrel into three pieces, then soak all of it in a bowl of lightly salted water to remove remnant blood. Rinse again, then parboil the squirrel. Remove it from the water. Salt and pepper it, roll it in flour and fry it in a well-oiled hot pan. The frying will be akin to frying chicken, only the squirrel tastes better.
Look for Gene Mueller's Outdoors column every Sunday and Wednesday, and his Fishing Report every Thursday, only in The Washington Times. E-mail:gmueller@washingtontimes.com.

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